Aug 8, 2012

Emily Dickinson, "This Quiet Dust"

Thanks to Hannah Stephenson for calling attention last March 30 to this eight-liner, Poem 813 by Emily Dickinson. I had never read it.

         This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
         And lads and girls—
         Was laughter and ability and sighing,
         And frocks and curls;

         This passive place a summer's nimble mansion,
         Where bloom and bees
         Fulfilled their oriental circuit,
         Then ceased like these—

Whatever else we might say about it, it's an example of how one can write about the grimmest subjects and be lovely at it—not by writing prettily, in lacy calligraphy, but by capturing the subject in a way that enhances the subject. Dickinson's subject here is mortality and the brevity of human experience. One way to capture that is to be brief, imitating your subject, being as icy with your subject as death is.

What specifics do we remember about someone we knew, now deceased, or humanity in general? I'm bowled over by Dickinson's unpredictable and stunning combination in Line 3:  "laughter and ability and sighing."
It's "ability" that throws a fantastic monkey wrench into what we'd expect. We can imagine ourselves going on and on sentimentally about laughter and sighs; most of us probably think consciously or otherwise that most of what's good is about laughter and sighs, moonlight and roses, splendor in the grass, tip-toeing through the daisies, God's hand patting us on the head or stretching out to show us where the good places are.

So who the hell threw "ability" into that sweet, familiar picture? Well, Emily Dickinson for one.

When we try to attribute  meaning and purpose to our lives, don't we place our abilities and achievements right up there with romantic and family love? "What makes me proud, or at least OK, about being me?" "What did I do or make that was good?" Babies?  Wooden cabinets (when I think of making, I always think first of carpenters, I'm not sure why)?  Space ships, poems, computer programs, a new arrangement of office space on the 43rd floor, an indestructible condom in six colors and sizes—it’s called the 36er  (6 x 6, get it?). 

I made that. Or, my spouse or child or friend made that. If we could know our heart of hearts, or others' heart of hearts, and be honest about it, I bet we admire abilities as much as relationships or more. Anybody can fall in love (or lust). Most people can breed. Most are mediocre at raising children.

By comparison to moonlight, lace, or splendiferous grasses, ability sounds cold and functional. But do you know anyone who can honestly say, "I don't have any ability at anything, and that's fine with me"?

Somewhere in these pages, I’ve told the story of the eminent William Faulkner and his daughter. He was starting a drinking binge, which she'd seen before, and she said something like, “Pappy, pappy, don’t start.” He replied, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” 

That cruelty and self-importance are almost unimaginable. However, there's no denying Faulkner's talent, and that complicates the whole situation.  So much for lads and girls and frocks and curls. In demanding attention for “ability,” E.D. has in a way stuck a mean old Faulkner-stick in the middle of hickory dickory dock mush. 
I could go on beating this drum about single words—a mansion that’s “nimble,” or the “circuit” of bees and blooms that’s “oriental”—but maybe I’ve made the point. Emily Dickinson may have felt her poem tugging her toward just another trite, smarmy, whiny protest about death’s unkindness and how sad it is that the laughing, flirting, pretty rich people in the drawing room have to become dust. By inserting curious, attention-demanding words like the few I’ve singled out, E.D. can have her cake more complicated and eat it too.

For those who want to mourn death as the consumption of wealthy elegance, here’s Poem 813. For those who wonder a little more vigorously just what it is we miss when a human dies, here’s Poem 813. E.D. tosses in some nuts and bolts that skew and enlarge the whole discussion. 

This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
And lads and girls--
Was laughter and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls;

This passive place a summer's nimble mansion,
Where bloom and bees
Fulfilled their oriental circuit,
Then ceased like these--


Hannah Stephenson said...


Lovely to see you talking Emily today, especially this poem (that I have such affection for).

You're right about that "ability" part...I can always hear it being read by a voice at that point,'s such a crisp sound (compared to "laughter" and "sighing").

Banjo52 said...

H, yes, I'm not sure I know another poem with a word that changes everything the way this one does, at least to my ear and brain. Thanks again for the recommendation.

Anonymous said...

That poet ED could look at nature in the smallest of life's creatures and see eternity. Thank your sharing this poem I too did not know. And the ending was superb! gin

Anonymous said...

FYI, my little picture on my profile was taken a couple of years ago on a visit I took to Emily Dickinson's house.

Ken Mac said...

you play those axes dude? Excellent comments as always, thanks...

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I wonder about the woman herself, who in many ways may have set outside that oriental circuit both bows, laughter and ability, and, within the context of her time, watched as fruitless wallflower.

Faulkner's abuse towards his daughter brings up a familiar truth. Genius doesn't always share the same floor plan with kindness.

Ken Mac said...

so calming...

Birdman said...

KMac gets so to the point. In the middle of this serious discussion of death, he brings up you guitar playing. What ability!
I so appreciate KD and this world she paints w/o extravagance.

Jean Spitzer said...

Perfect summer poem.

I have been seeing a lot of what was, lately. This fits nicely.

Banjo52 said...

KM, axes? Am I out of the cool loop on slang again?

cg, I agree with point 1. Point 2, tried to visit Emily's house in Amherst a few years ago, but it was a Monday or something, and it was closed. Next time. Thanks for the visit. I like the flowers at your place.

PA, could be; and yes. What a shame. And of course the great irony, we look to them for wisdom--not that there's anything wrong with that.

Bman, "without extravagance." Great phrase, and I agree.

Jean, yes, we say she, with Hopkins across the Atlantic, were surprisingly modern, and I agree. But she's also very, very Victorian--except that she's more truthful and complex than those folks who covered the legs of furniture, lest it be sexually suggestive.

Stickup Artist said...

Emily occupies a special place in my heart, right alongside Chief Seattle. I don't know why I see them linked. Perhaps it has to do with deep and refined sensibilities of the natural surroundings and the use of nature imagery. Or maybe, that fatalistic knowledge, always lurking, that only humans possess, that we must all return to the earth no matter how much our abilities, strivings, and little concerns distract us.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, I've only seen one short piece attributed to Chief Seattle, but I'll take your word for it. Thanks for the comparison.

Anonymous said...

When my dad died, we imported a red granite headstone from Norway. And then the three of us "kids" each gave a shot at an epitaph. Don't recall what mine was, but I know it was more than 3000 letters long. So I didn't win the contest. All this to say, glad I didn't know about the poem, because I think that's pretty perfect, too.

Lovers' Lane